By John Lee Pendall
What’s wrong with all these dreary old men in robes who think they know it all? With few exceptions, that pretty much sums up my experience with institutional Western Zen.
This interaction happened on that most grotesque (but addictive) social media network that uses that strangely abrasive shade of blue everywhere. I mentioned how I like to make excessive use of the list sharing feature so as to not bombard my loved ones with things they don’t care about (like Zen).
A Zen priest friend commented that everything he does is always public, and that no one really cares what we have to say either way. They just scroll on by if they aren’t interested.
He’s not wrong, but he’s still an asshole.
A lot of these second and third generation Western priests are kinda prickly, and I don’t really understand why. And they’re not prickly in the, “I’m going to hit you with this board until you either wake up or die,” old school kinda way. They just act like your run-of-the-mill, arrogant, cynical jerks. Why anyone would want to practice with them is beyond me. I wouldn’t want to share a drink with them, let alone let them into my heart and mind so that they can make a mess of (the already messy) place. That’d be like asking Dr. Gregory House to give you sensitivity training.
People love these rude, cynical guys; they’re in vogue, they’re our modern heroes. That’s probably why Trump is president.
I like a little saltiness, cheeky pessimism and playful sarcasm, but there’s a difference between that and being, well, a bully. I don’t mind people being themselves, especially if they’ve used practice to see through the BS to that authentic expression of who they are. Sure, maybe that genuine expression is a little rough around the edges depending on the person, but the issue is that these are priests we’re talking about here—representatives of the Dharma. Instead of inspiring people to uncover the brightest aspects of themselves, they bring out the worst.
If we defend ourselves, we’re touchy; if we acquiesce, we’re weak. Ya can’t win with these douchebags.
I can see what they think they’re trying to do: they’re trying to point out how attached and dualistic our thoughts and feelings can be. But they’re doing this without permission, and they’re going about it haphazardly like a nervous virgin fumbling with a bra strap.
Most of these guys seem to come from Japanese Soto lineages; I’ve only ever had warm encounters with Chinese Ch’an and Korean Seon priests, so maybe it’s the inherent focus on hierarchy in Japanese Zen that does it?
Truth be told, I don’t give a damn about your credentials or how long you’ve been practicing. I care about character, about that little light that shines through in the things we say and do. I’ll be a student of anyone who lets that light shine. If I can’t see that light, then I’d rather learn from the old books, the moon, trees and tides.
Most of the Facebook priests have given up trying to recruit me. In their defense, I’m a tough student. I will kick and scream and wander off every inch of the way, but I’ll always keep going if I respect the teacher.
I’m singling out Zen priests because I practice Zen, but this devil-may-care attitude is everywhere in the Buddhist ranks. A lot of Western Theravada practitioners exemplify it, and it’s in Secular Buddhism too, and it makes me doubt the sincerity of Western Buddhism as a whole. I wonder if we’re cherry-picking to the point of destabilizing the foundation. I won’t have any part of that.
I might be wrong, but I think that people do care. Maybe that’s just because I care.
I don’t want to hurt people or offend them. I don’t want to challenge their views or whip them into my approximation of what their proper shape should be and I’m not going to force my views or my way of life on anyone else. Sure, that’s partially due to my own insecurities, but it’s also because I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me.
I’m going to keep using lists, I’m going to keep regarding others’ well-being, because that’s who I am. If anyone—whether they’re in a robe or not—tries to change that, they’d have better luck teaching a stone.
Ultimately, I think that to be a decent Buddhist teacher, you have to be empathetic. That’s the way to make the Dharma into something living, rather than a dead shell full of lifeless ash. A teacher needs to see people the way they see themselves, because that’s the version of the person we’re trying to guide, not the version we’re forming of them in our own minds. You have to be open and able to feel others in order to use the Dharma in an effective way. That’s what you see in the old books, and it’s what you don’t see in most modern teachers.
Mindfulness and meditation are a science, but enlightenment is an art.
I have no interest in paint-by-numbers teachers who think they’re Picasso. Zen isn’t as simple (or complex) as teaching someone a trade or explaining a formula; it’s intuitive, emotional work.
How can you say, “No one cares,” and even remotely think that you’re qualified to teach it?
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".